Alleging sexual abuse in the 1970s and '80s, two former student actors at Children's Theatre Company have filed suit against the Minneapolis theater, co-founder John Clark Donahue and Minneapolis entrepreneur Jason McLean.

The civil complaint, filed Monday in Hennepin County District Court, revisits a disturbing chapter of the company's past that sent Donahue to jail after he pleaded guilty in 1984 to sexual misconduct with three teenage boys.

This is the first time that abuse allegations have been filed in court against McLean, 61, who owns the Loring Pasta Bar and the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis. He worked as an actor and a teaching artist at Children's Theatre (CTC).

On Tuesday, CTC issued a response: "Any abuse of a child is a terrible act; it goes against everything we believe in as professionals and as human beings. We stand with the victims of abuse in their desire to see justice done and to have the truth be known. At the same time, however, we have a responsibility to defend the theater from allegations that we think are misdirected."

Laura Stearns Adams, an actor and artisan who works as wigmaster at the Guthrie Theater, alleges in the suit that McLean "inflicted harmful, offensive and unpermitted sexual contact" upon her in 1983 when she was 15.

"I was coerced and raped," Adams said at a news conference on Tuesday. "I use that word because it's accurate. I was a child."

McLean's attorney, Jon Hopeman, said that his client was surprised by the allegations and that he "intends to defend against this lawsuit with all his might and to clear his name." In a statement, Hopeman said that the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) had investigated sexual-abuse allegations against McLean in 1984 but that no criminal charges resulted.

Donahue, who was CTC's artistic director, is being sued by a John Doe for "multiple instances" of sexual battery in 1977 when the litigant was 15. (The Star Tribune does not publicly identify alleged victims of sexual assaults unless they do so themselves.)

Donahue did not return repeated calls for comment.

CTC is being sued for alleged negligent hiring and supervision, and for having continued to employ Donahue and McLean when it "should have known" that they posed a potential risk to minors.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Jeff Anderson, underscored that he sees no current evidence of sexual abuse at the theater, which overhauled its policies in the wake of the 1984 scandal.

"I have no information, nor do I claim, that what they're doing today is anything but some of the best artistic endeavors," Anderson said. "Our goal is not to take down what is good now, but to reveal what is unspoken and unrevealed" from the past.

In its response, CTC said it has a "comprehensive set of practices" to keep children safe, including background checks on staffers; a ban on socializing with children outside official activities, and a "rule of three" requiring that no staff member or volunteer be alone with a student in a private space.

A story 'clawing to be told'

The suit was filed under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which extends the statute of limitations on old cases of abuse. Passed in 2013 to facilitate legal action against the Catholic Church and clergy, the act will expire in May.

"This story has been at the door clawing to be told for decades," said Adams, 48, who studied and acted at CTC from 1981 to 1985 and was class president when she graduated from the theater's now-closed conservatory high school.

"I'm coming out with my name, my face, because I want to create a space where people can feel safe to tell their stories. I want them to know that silence is no longer necessary and there can be healing in the process."

In an interview, Adams said she has struggled for years about going public, in part because she learned so much at the theater and developed lifelong friendships there. She also felt honored at first to have been noticed by McLean, a leading man at the company.

The alleged abuse occurred after Adams was cast opposite McLean — as a love interest — in a 1982 holiday show, "Mister Pickwick's Christmas." He was almost twice her age.

"I was very tall and looked very mature, even though I wasn't," she said. "The fact that he turned his attention on me at that age made me feel special."

Adams said that she did not tell anyone about the alleged abuse — not even her parents, for fear that they would take her out of the school.

Anderson said that in 1984, BCA investigators looking into another abuse allegation asked Adams if McLean had sexually abused her; she said no.

Adams only began to talk about the experience more widely this summer, after a Children's Theatre 50th anniversary event at which she and other past students reunited and traded stories.

At Tuesday's news conference, held in Anderson's St. Paul office, Adams was applauded by a group of family members and friends from the theater community. "I'm here for Laura," said actor Shanan Custer.

The suit also accuses McLean of sexual relationships with two other underage female students from 1982 to 1985. Those students are not plaintiffs in the suit. After Donahue's arrest in 1984, according to the complaint, McLean asked one of those victims "to assist him by speaking to a list of several female Children's Theatre students … to try to convince them that the abuse was consensual."

McLean was put on leave during the investigation, but he later returned to work. He left CTC in 1986 and started the Loring Cafe, a restaurant on the edge of downtown Minneapolis that attracted a stylish crowd, and the Loring Playhouse, where independent theater companies presented shows. They were in business for 16 years.

He later launched the Loring Pasta Bar in Dinkytown, and revived the nearby Varsity as a concert and event space.

Donahue charges detailed

The civil suit also details an alleged history of sexual abuse by Donahue, 77, dating to 1961, before CTC was founded. That year he resigned as a teacher at Carl Sandburg Junior High in Golden Valley after pleading guilty to charges of indecency involving a 17-year-old, according to the complaint.

"Children's Theatre and [its] board should have learned that Donahue was not fit to work with children," says the complaint. It alleges that he sexually abused at least 16 other minors during the two decades he was artistic director and brought the theater to international renown.

He was arrested on April 18, 1984, on charges of molesting three boys. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to a year in prison and 15 years' probation, during which time he was to have no contact with children. He served 10 months in the Hennepin County workhouse.

That investigation led to charges against six other men. A Minneapolis public school teacher was convicted of having sex with one of the minors abused by Donahue. The others were acquitted or had charges dismissed.

After Donahue's release, he worked in theater in Arizona for two years before McLean hired him as pastry chef at the Loring Café. He has since directed and designed shows for several Twin Cities theaters.

Anderson said this suit was important to lift "the toxic silence" around a dark chapter in the theater's history.

"It never gave [the victims] a chance to heal, or to have a life of hope, and deal with the consequences of what was done to them," said Anderson, who has brought sexual-abuse lawsuits against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Boy Scouts of America, among others.

Each plaintiff seeks at least $50,000 in damages.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390